What's a Free Software Non-Profit For?
byon November 28, 2011
Much was written last week that speculated about the role of foundations and the always-changing ways that developers write Free Software. I must respectfully point out that I believe this discussion doesn't address the key purpose of doing Free Software work as part of a non-profit organization.
Conservancy always avoids making any technical recommendations. Indeed, Conservancy counts among its members Darcs, Git and Mercurial, all of whom likely disagree on the preferred distributed version control system. Conservancy, for its part, doesn't have a recommended version control system, nor a recommended hosting site, nor anything else like that. I even grit my teeth and just live with it when Conservancy's member projects choose Github over Gitorious (since the latter is Free Software itself and the former is not — an issue that concerns me deeply).
In short, Conservancy's job isn't to tell projects how to do what they do best: write and develop Free Software. Of course, our members must license their software under a license that's both FSF- and OSI-approved, and all official project activities (including development) must fit Conservancy's not-for-profit mission. But beyond oversight on that issue, Conservancy doesn't interfere with the development of our projects' software.
Instead, Conservancy handles all the aspects of running a non-profit software project that don't involve actually developing software. Conservancy's service plan includes many things, from handling donations, reimbursing developers for conference travel, to holding domain names, copyrights, and trademarks, to enforcing those copyrights and trademarks, to basic legal services. These items are the role for the non-profit organization in the life of a Free Software project. Conservancy's goal is to ensure that the software project continues to improve and benefit the public good, and to handle all the mundane aspects of non-profit activity.
Nevertheless, Conservancy's way of operating doesn't fit every project's culture. In the past, I've even recommended to Conservancy applicants that Apache Software Foundation, Free Software Foundation or Software in the Public Interest was a better home for their project, merely because the project seemed to have a culture that fit better with those organizations.
Upon finding the right cultural fit, a non-profit home can promote the
advancement of a Free Software project in ways the project can't do
merely as a band of part-time volunteer developers. By contrast to
those who are asking whether these non-profits
still make sense,
I argue that more than ever, developers need as much time as they
can spare to keep up with the rapid changes in technology and community
development methodologies. A non-profit home can take care of the
other, non-software-development tasks, leaving the projects' volunteers
to focus on what they do best.
As for adherence to the rules, while Conservancy is liberal on rules related to development methodologies, we remain somewhat conservative on the areas of the organization's expertise. Namely, Conservancy carefully oversees the financial spending and asset management of Conservancy's projects to ensure they continue to operate in a not-for-profit way to advance the public good. This is the most important standing agenda item on my daily schedule, and I believe that's the center of my job in providing services to our member projects. While I once was a software developer (and I sometimes can't resist giving my technical opinion to one of Conservancy's member projects), I constantly focus my role on the stuff that developers hate doing, so that they keep doing the work the love that helps the whole community.
Conservancy Activity Summary, October-December 2010
byon January 2, 2011
I had hoped to blog more regularly about my work at Conservancy, and hopefully I'll do better in the coming year. But now seems a good time to summarize what has happened with Conservancy since I started my full-time volunteer stint as Executive Director from 2010-10-01 until 2010-12-31.
We excitedly announced in the last few months two new Conservancy member projects, PyPy and Git. Thinking of PyPy connects me back to my roots in Computer Science: in graduate school, I focused on research about programming language infrastructure and, in particular, virtual machines and language runtimes. PyPy is a project that connects Conservancy to lots of exciting programming language research work of that nature, and I'm glad they've joined.
For its part, Git rounds out a group of three DVCS projects that are now Conservancy members; Conservancy is now the home of Darcs, Git, and Mercurial. Amusingly, when I reminded the Git developers when they applied that their “competition” were members, the Git developers told me that they were inspired to apply because these other DVCS' had been happy in Conservancy. That's a reminder that the software freedom community remains a place where projects — even that might seem on the surface as competitors — seek to get along and work together whenever possible. I'm glad Conservancy now hosts all these projects together.
Meanwhile, I remain in active discussions with five projects that have been offered membership in Conservancy. As I always tell new projects, joining Conservancy is a big step for a project, so it often takes time for communities to discuss the details of Conservancy's Fiscal Sponsorship Agreement. It may be some time before these five projects join, and perhaps they'll ultimately decide not to join. However, I'll continue to help them make the right decision for their project, even if joining a different fiscal sponsor (or not joining one at all) is the ultimately right choice.
Also, about once every two weeks, another inquiry about joining Conservancy comes in. We won't be able to accept all the projects that are interested, but hopefully many can become members of Conservancy.
In the late fall, I finished up Conservancy's 2010 filings. Annual filings for a non-profit can be an administrative rat-hole at times, but the level of transparency they create for an organization makes them worth it. Conservancy's FY 2009 Federal Form 990 and FY 2009 New York CHAR-500 are up on Conservancy's filing page. I always make the filings available on our own website; I wish other non-profits would do this. It's so annoying to have to go to a third-party source to grab these documents. (Although New York State, to its credit, makes all the NY NPO filings available on its website.)
Conservancy filed a Form 990-EZ in FY 2009. If you take a look, I'd encourage you to direct the most attention to Part III (which is on the top of page 2) to see most of Conservancy's program activities between 2008-03-01 to 2009-02-28.
In FY 2010, Conservancy will move from the New York State requirement of “limited financial review” to “full audit“ (see page 4 of the CHAR-500 for the level requirements). Conservancy had so little funds in FY 2007 that it wasn't required to file a Form 990 at all. Now, just three years later, there is enough revenue to warrant a full audit. However, I've already begun preparing myself for all the administrative work that will entail.
Project Growth and Funding
Those increases in revenue are related to growth in many of Conservancy's projects. 2010 marked the beginning of the first full-time funding of a developer by Conservancy. Specifically, since June, Matt Mackall has been funded through directed donations to Conservancy to work full-time on Mercurial. Matt blogs once a month (under topic of Mercurial Fellowship Update) about his work, but, more directly, the hundreds of changesets that Matt's committed really show the advantages of funding projects through Conservancy.
Conservancy is also collecting donations and managing funding for various part-time development initiatives by many developers. Developers of jQuery, Sugar Labs, and Twisted have all recently received regular development funding through Conservancy. An important part of my job is making sure these developers receive funding and report the work clearly and fully to the community of donors (and the general public) that fund this work.
But, as usual with Conservancy, it's handling of the “many little things” for projects that make a big difference and sometimes takes the most time. In late 2010, Conservancy handled funding for Code Sprints and conferences for the Mercurial, Darcs, and jQuery. In addition, jQuery held a conference in Boston in October, for which Conservancy handled all the financial details. I was fortunate to be able to attend the conference and meet many of the jQuery developers in person for the first time. Wine also held their annual conference in November 2010, and Conservancy handled the venue details and reimbursements to many of travelers to the conference.
Also, as always, Conservancy project contributors regularly attend other conferences related to their projects. At least a few times a month, Conservancy reimburses developers for travel to speak and attend important conferences related to their projects.
Google Summer of Code
Since its inception, Google's Summer of Code (SoC) program has been one of the most important philanthropy programs for Open Source and Free Software projects. In 2010, eight Conservancy projects (and 5% of the entire SoC program) participated in SoC. The SoC program funds college students for the summer to contribute to the projects, and an experienced contributor to project mentors each student. A $500 stipend is paid to the non-profit organization of the project for each project contributor who mentors a student.
Furthermore, there's an annual conference, in October, of all the mentors, with travel funded by Google. This is a really valuable conference, since it's one of the few places where very disparate Free Software projects that usually wouldn't interact can meet up in one place. I attended this year's Soc Mentor Summit and hope to attend again next year.
I'm really going to be urging all Conservancy's projects to take advantage of the SoC program in 2011. The level of funding given out by Google for this program is higher than any other open-application funding program for FLOSS. While Google's selfish motives are clear (the program presumably helps them recruit young programmers to hire), the benefit to Free Software community of the program can nevertheless not be ignored.
GPL Enforcement, primarily for our BusyBox member project, remains an active focus of Conservancy. Work regarding the lawsuit continues. It's been more than a year since Conservancy filed a lawsuit against fourteen defendants who manufacture embedded devices that included BusyBox without source nor an offer for source. Some of those have come into compliance with the GPL and settled, but a number remain and are out of compliance; our litigation efforts continue. Usually, our lawyers encourage us not to comment on ongoing litigation, but we did put up a news item in August when the Court granted Conservancy a default judgment against one of the defendants, Westinghouse.
Meanwhile, in the coming year, Conservancy hopes to expand efforts to enforce the GPL. New violation reports on BusyBox arrive almost daily that need attention.
More Frequent Blogging
As noted at the start of this post, my hope is to update Conservancy's blog more regularly with information about our activities.
Conservancy's First Blog Post
byon October 4, 2010
As can be seen in today's announcement, today is my first day as full-time Executive Director at the Software Freedom Conservancy. For four years, I have worked part-time on nights, weekends, and lunch times to keep Conservancy running and to implement and administer the services that Conservancy provides to its member projects. It's actual quite a relief to now have full-time attention available to carry out this important work.
From the start, one of my goals with Conservancy has been to run the non-profit organization as transparently as possible. At times, I've found that when time is limited, keeping the public informed about all your work is often the first item to fall too far down on the action item list. Now that Conservancy is my primary, daily focus, I hope to increase its transparency as much as possible.
Specifically, I plan to keep a regular blog about activities of the Conservancy. I've found that a public blog is a particular convenient way to report to the public in a non-onerous way about the activities of an organization. Indeed, we usually ask those developers whose work is funded through Conservancy to keep a blog about their activities, so that the project's community and the public at large can get regular updates about the work. I should hold myself to no less a standard!
I encourage everyone to subscribe to the full Conservancy site RSS feed, where you'll receive both news items and blog posts from the Conservancy. There are also separate feeds available for just news and just blog posts. Also, if you're a subscriber to my personal blog, I will cross-post these blog posts there, although my posts on Conservancy's blog will certainly be a proper subset of my entire personal blog.